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Space The Military Science

X-37B Robotic Space Plane Returns To Earth 55

Posted by Soulskill
from the down-to-earth dept.
Kozar_The_Malignant writes "The secretive X-37B robotic space plane has returned to Earth after a seven-month mission. This was the vehicle's first flight. Looking like a cross between a Predator Drone and the Space Shuttle, it landed at Vandenberg AFB in California, which was to have been the military's shuttle launch facility. Speculation is that the X-37B is an orbital spy platform."
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X-37B Robotic Space Plane Returns To Earth

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  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Friday December 03, 2010 @06:53PM (#34438768)

    One of the big "it's not as logical as you'd think" headslappers of the space age is that the cost of launch dwarfs the cost of hardware. The space shuttle made a whole lot of sense with the idea of repairing satellites in space until you realized that with launch costs what they were, it was cheaper to sent up a new sat than fix an old one. The Hubble remains a very special case and I'm sure some people could make a case that it would have been cheaper to build and launch a series of Hubbles with incremental improvements on the usual $100 million a launch expendable vehicles than service it with $500 million a launch shuttles.

    Aaaanyway, the only useful mission that fits this flight profile is as a crew transfer vehicle. If it's just a spy sat, why bring it back? Back in the early days the spy sats actually took film and the cannisters were dropped down from orbit. Specially-equipped C-130's had to catch the cannisters before they went in the drink. A flyback cannister could make sense but the sats started beaming back their data yonks ago. The only thing I can think of is if they're trying to test out hardware and need to put the old eyeball on it directly to see how it's fared in space. But we've been doing a pretty good job designing sats without that kind of inspection for a long time. Color me stumped.

  • by FTL (112112) <[eman.resarf.lien] [ta] [todhsals]> on Friday December 03, 2010 @07:09PM (#34438934) Homepage

    I agree completely that the X-37 makes no apparent sense. The only argument I can come up with is that returning is just a nice side effect of its real purpose: inclination changes. Chaning altitude and period and phase is all relatively easy with onboard thrusters (and X-37 has an orbital maneuvering engine almost as big as the Space Shuttle's). But the amount of thurst needed to change oribal inclination from, say equatorial to ISS, is vast. I calculated it recently as being equivalent to the delta-v provided by an earth to LEO launch.

    What X-37 might be capable of is dipping into the atmosphere, banking, then thrusting back up to orbit. That's exactly what the Air Force's previous space plane was designed to do, the Dyna-soar. Once one has this capability, returning from orbit to a runway landing is a freebie since you already have the wings.

    The recently concluded X-37 test flight did not show an inclination change. But look for it on a future flight. This would allow extreme flexability in imaging enemy action at completely unpredictable times.

If all the world's economists were laid end to end, we wouldn't reach a conclusion. -- William Baumol

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